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‘Don’t Look Up’ Isn’t About Climate Change. It’s All About Us

‘Don’t Look Up’ Isn’t About Climate Change. It’s All About Us

Various characters in "Don't Look Up" on the set of "The Daily Rip," a fictional TV show in the film.

Image: Netflix

When Don’t Look Up’s trailer droppedIt was amazing. As a climate person, you don’t get too many movies made for you. I have a sneak preview and it has exceeded my expectations.

Adam McKay directed the film. It is about a comet that is on a collision course to Earth. However, the comet is used as a metaphor for climate change. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, as Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky as scientists and PhD students who spot the comet. Jonah Hill plays Jason, the son-slash adviser, and President Janie Orlean. However, Jason ignores the warnings due to a series of scandals and midterm election results.

The full version of the article is available here io9 review of Don’t Look Up, which sums it up perfectly as “a film that’s funny without being slapstick, dramatic without being melodramatic, and brutally honest about the state of the world.” I want to spend some time, though, talking about the themes in Don’t Look Up that jumped out at me beyond the whole comet-as-climate-change one. Be aware that there are some spoilers and plot points.

It is difficult to depict climate change on the big screen. That’s why outside a few movies like The Day After Tomorrow Geostorm, it’s slim pickings. The comet in Don’t Look UpIt is a great metaphor to show the danger of unchecked climate changes. It was striking to me that, while the movie shows the climate crisis in its entirety, it is easy to show the underlying conditions that are driving it. Or, condition. Streep’s demagogic President Orleans, a media ecosystem driven by clicks and entertainment, brands pushing ads everywhere, and technology that claims to know you better than you know yourself all serve as distractions from the threat of the film’s comet.

The film subtly shows how distracted its characters are, offering uncomfortable close-ups of everything from fidgeting limbs to consumer products that hint at how they’d rather be doing anything than talking about impending doom. The phrase “don’t look up” is a slogan used to get people to avoid seeing the comet, but it’s just as easily a command to pay attention only to the distractions on the screens in front of us and accept the world as corporations and populist politicians want us to see it.

But there’s a third read on the movie’s title. Mindy switches from truth-sayer into distraction at a point when he accepts the chance to be the public face for a poorly crafted corporate plan to extract minerals from the comet. He eventually turns back to truth-sayer, and he is driving alone when he sees the comet in flight. He gets out of his car and joins the rest of the road. It’s a powerful moment of connection even if nobody is talking to each other.

As the third act develops, it becomes clear that looking up isn’t just about seeing the comet. It’s about seeing each other for who we are and our place in the natural world. This theme is highlighted throughout the movie. The movie includes a few moments of distractions and cut scenes showing people from around the globe engaging in everyday activities. The film also shows people coming together to prevent disaster. One final scene in the film shows all the good guys sitting around a table and sharing their lives. It highlights the bonds we all have.

I won’t totally spoil the ending except to say things do not end well for Earth. But while it’s easy to see that as a doomer take (indeed, our buds at the AVClub called it a “cranky, doomy” movie), I didn’t read it that way. We don’t get a Hollywood ending, but it’s not for lack of trying. And when it comes to climate change, I think it’s fair to say that anyone who has looked at the science the state of politics for long enough isn’t exactly planning for that either. The best-case climate scenario is based on one thing: That all 8 billion of us on Earth do look up. Also known as SSP1, it puts “emphasis on human well being” and “respects perceived environmental boundaries.” In other words, we’re invested in each other and preserving what we have rather than exploiting it.

In Don’t Look UpIt’s too late for the characters to realize this. But even if it’s a long shot for us, it’s still worth fighting for. I don’t know that we need a movie to tell us that—or that Don’t Look Up will reach the people most needing to change course in given how mercilessly it skewers them—but seeing it on the screen was nevertheless a revelation that you can make a good climate movie. It just has to be about us.

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